North of the Snæfellsnes peninsula and some 45km from Bifröst, the wide and sheltered Hvammsfjörður lies protected from the open sea at its mouth by dozens of small islands. Accessed via Bifröst on Route 60, or from Route 54 along the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, its main service centre is Búðardalur, an uninspiring place that is best passed over in favour of the rich saga country close by. Running northeast from Buðardalur is Laxárdalur, the valley around which one of the best-known Viking romances, the Laxdæla Saga, was played out. South of here, Eiríksstaðir, in Haukadalur, was home to Eirík the Red, discoverer of Greenland, and the birthplace of his son, Leifur, who went on to discover North America.
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BÚÐARDALUR is home to just 250 people, and provides limited banking, postal and retail services to the surrounding rural districts. It’s an unkempt place, consisting of little more than a collection of a dozen or so suburban streets, and the only reason to break your journey here is to pop into the museum en route to the nearby saga sites.
Búðardalur’s one and only attraction is Leifsbúð, a modest museum dedicated to Leifur Eiríksson and his voyage to North America from Greenland. Despite such a rich historical theme to draw upon, the museum will barely whet your appetite with its disappointing collection of wooden models and uninspiring photographs – the key exhibit, a tapestry recounting the discovery of Vínland, is a modern creation and less than accurate in its portrayal of historical facts.
The country which is called Greenland was discovered and settled from Iceland. Eirík the Red was the name of a man from Breiðafjörður who went out there and took possession of land in the place which has since been called Eiríksfjörður. He named the country Greenland and said it would make people want to go there if the country had a good name.
Extract from Book of the Icelandersby Ari the Learned (1067–1148).
Twenty kilometres southeast of Búðardalur and reached by Route 586 (8km from the junction with Route 60) into Haukadalur valley, the former farm of Eiríksstaðir is one of the most historically significant locations in Iceland. This was the starting point for all westward expansion by the Vikings, first to Greenland and later to the shores of North America. Following a couple of earlier failed archaeological digs, a third attempt was made between 1997 and 2000 to excavate this site, which experts believe to be the most likely home of Eiríkur Þorvaldsson, better known as Eirík the Red and father of Leifur, who became the first European to set foot in North America. During the dig archeologists found the remnants of a 50-square-metre hall dated to 890–980 AD, and, although no timber was unearthed, they did come across doorways, clearly marked out with stone paving.
An evocative reconstruction of Eiríkur’s original longhouse now stands in front of the ruins and is a must for anyone interested in the Viking period. Its turf walls, 12m long by 4m wide, are huddled around a dirt floor and support a roof made of rafters covered over with twigs atop a layer of turf. Story-telling guides, evocatively dressed as Vikings, expertly bring the period to life and will also point out the significant features of the ruins. To the untrained eye they can be hard to find (they’re located immediately behind the small statue of Leifur; from the statue take the gravel path to the right up the hillside heading towards the waterfall).
A little further up Route 60 from the Hvammur junction and about 2km west, LAUGAR in Sælingsdalur valley was the birthplace of Guðrún Ósvifsdóttir. Remains of the old baths where she had frequent meetings with Kjartan can still be seen at Laugar farm; follow the signs to it along Route 589. This valley is also where her husband Bolli was ambushed and murdered by Kjartan’s brothers. In Guðrún’s day, the geothermal springs here were an important landmark for travellers on the long journey to and from the West Fjords. Today they feed a wonderful outdoor swimming pool and small steam room which forms part of the Edda Laugar hotel. There’s also a school nearby housing a small folk museum, with the usual displays on local history.
The Vikings, Greenland and North America
The Vikings, Greenland and North America
Although Icelanders don’t like to admit it, Eirík the Red and his father were actually Norwegian. According to the Book of Settlements, Landnámabók, they left Norway to settle in the Hornstrandir region of the West Fjords, where they lived until Eirík’s father died. It’s believed that Eirík moved to Haukadalur from Drangar in Hornstrandir after marrying Þjóðhildur, whose parents already lived at nearby Vatn in Haukadalur. However, he was an unruly man, and, after getting into a row and murdering several of his neighbours, he was driven out of the valley having lived there for ten to twenty years. Eirík then set up home on Suðurey (part of Brokey) and Öxney, two islands east of Stykkishólmur in Breiðafjörður, where he once again fell out with his neighbours who, after further violence, was outlawed once again – it was then, with a ship full of friends, that he set sail, charting a course south of Snæfellsnes, for new land and adventure. He eventually discovered land in 985 and, according to the sagas, promptly named it Greenland, “because it would encourage people to go there if the land had a good name”. He settled at Brattahlíð in a fjord he named after himself, Eiríksfjörður, near present day Narsarsuaq. No doubt inspired by his father, Leifur set out to the west from his new home, Greenland, first reaching barren, rocky land that he named Helluland (Baffin Island), from where he continued south to an area of flat wooded land he named Markland (Labrador), in 1000 AD. After another two days at sea he reached more land, where, the sagas have us believe, grapes grew in abundance. Leifur named this land Vínland, which some experts believe could mean “Wineland”. However, since two days’ sailing from Labrador would only take him as far south as current-day New England, not exactly known for its wines, speculation remains as to where Viking Vínland is.
The Laxdæla Saga
The Laxdæla Saga
The Laxdæla Saga has three main characters – the tall, blonde and heroic Kjartan; the beautiful Guðrún Ósvífsdóttir; and Kjartan’s cousin Bolli, who lurks in the background to complete a classic love triangle. It takes thirty or so chapters before the three figures are centre stage, but before they have met, a wise man predicts that Guðrún will have four husbands. After seeing Kjartan and Bolli swimming together, he later predicts that one day Bolli will stand over the dead Kjartan, and be killed for his deeds; and thus the inescapable template for the characters’ lives is set out to the reader.
Guðrún is married to her first husband against her will and divorces him after two years. She then marries Þord, who incurs the enmity of a family of sorcerers and is drowned as a result. Guðrún then meets Kjartan, and they become close, but Kjartan decides to seek his fortune abroad, and asks Guðrún to wait three years for him, but she refuses.
While in Norway, Kjartan is held hostage, but still finds time to have an affair with the beautiful princess Ingibjorg. Bolli, who has been with his cousin during his courtship and on Viking expeditions, now returns to Iceland and tells Gudrún that Kjartan intends to settle in Norway, whereupon Gudrún’s family persuade her to marry Bolli. Kjartan subsequently returns and marries another woman, Hrefna, giving her a priceless headdress as a wedding gift, a gift actually bestowed on him by Ingibjorg, who had told him to give it to Gudrún as a wedding present.
There is no love lost between the two neighbouring households, and things only worsen when the headdress is stolen. In revenge, Kjartan lays siege to Guðrún and Bolli and humiliates them by not letting them go to the lavatory for three days. Eventually, Guðrún goads Bolli and his brothers to try to kill Kjartan – Bolli is reluctant but eventually joins the fight, dealing a death blow to a barely injured but exhausted Kjartan, who gives himself to be killed by Bolli and dies in his arms. Guðrún gloats over his death but Bolli is inconsolable. Kjartan’s brothers avenge him by eventually killing Bolli – Guðrún is pregnant at the time, and one of the killers wipes his sword on her dress.
Eventually Guðrún gives birth to a son whom she names Bolli, after his father. She decides she won’t marry again until her husband is avenged, and makes a promise to Þorgils Hölluson that she will marry no other man in the land than him if he kills her husband’s murderer. This he does, at which point Guðrún reveals she is betrothed to another, Þorkel Eyjólfsson, who is abroad. She does indeed marry Þorkel, but he drowns, after which Guðrún becomes a nun. She dies a hermit at Helgafell but before she dies, her son Bolli asks her which man in her life she loved the most, to which she replies “I was worst to him I loved the most” – one of the best-known lines of saga literature.